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The Morality of Nations. 427 


We are all willing enough to acknowledge that we are 
under some sort of moral law. Our life is regulated by a " Do 
this," " Abstain from that" above and beyond that limited 
circle of duties sanctioned by the law of the land. But it 
seems to be a moot point whether there are any laws of poli- 
tics like the laws of ethics — whether there is such a thing as 
a morality of nations as well as a morality of individuals. 

Of course, in one sense of the term, there is no question 
about it. The citizens of a state, or members of a race, have 
in all cases certain characteristics — more or less strongly 
marked — which are exemplified in all or most members of the 
race or nation. These are traits of national or racial char- 
acter, and lead to different nations regulating their own affairs 
in ways of their own, and holding themselves differently 
towards their neighbors. In this way we have as a fact 
a national character, not very distinctly traced perhaps, but 
still there in its broad features. Perhaps we might call it a 
national morality, — traits of moral character which distinguish 
one race from another and develop from generation to gen- 
eration in connection with their surroundings. 

But it is a further question than this that raises doubt in 
many minds. Can we say of the state or nation, as we do of 
the individual, that it ought to do or abstain from anything ? 
Is there anywhere to be found a moral code for nations corre- 
sponding to the moral law to which the individual conscience 
bows ? . This is the question which I purpose to consider here: 
comparing national with individual morality, and asking in 
what sense states may be said to be under moral obligation — 
to have duties to their citizens or to other states. And I shall 
endeavor to carry out the discussion without entering into 
any question as to the philosophical basis of ethics or of 

428 International Journal of Ethics. 

Behind the fictitious personality which is ascribed to a 
state or nation there is a more concrete reality than the will 
of emperor or cabinet or popular majority. The state (it may 
indeed be said) is nothing but the people who make it, or those 
who serve or guide it. And this, at least, is true : that the state 
is nothing without the people or apart from them. It is the 
people, but \he people in certain relations to one another, with 
a common history, common traditions, and a common national 
character which has grown out of these and will determine the 
conduct of the people when they act together and for common 
ends. The state is the people, but the people organized for 
certain purposes. It is not enough to say that the action of a 
state is but the decision of a king or prime minister or of a 
majority in Parliament. The decision or the action is not an 
individual or personal one : it is representative of the nation. 
It may have been induced by selfish motives ; king or minister 
or parliamentary majority may play for its own hand; but 
still the action concerns the relation of the state as a whole 
to its citizens or to other states. And if it has escaped this 
worst but common fault, — if the nation's representative has 
acted for national and not for personal ends, — can we say that, 
in this case, the action done by a nation's representative for 
national ends is to be judged in the same way as if it were a 
merely personal or individual action ? 

The state, accordingly, is not merely a collection of indi- 
viduals. It is these individuals organized in- a definite way. 
We may expect, therefore, to find that the principles of state- 
action and the principles of individual action are not the 
same. At least it is clear that the state moves in a different 
region, so to speak, from that in which individuals move. The 
state may, or rather always does, act by means of individuals. 
There is no other agency known to us. But individuals, 
acting as and for the state, have a different function from that 
which belongs to them as individuals. Men have a duty first to 
other individuals, secondly and at the same time to that organ- 
ized social body which we call the state. The state also has a 
twofold activity, first, in relation to its own citizens, secondly, 
in relation to other states. In one region of its activity 

The Morality of Nations. 429 

the state and the individual bear a relation to one another 
which may be imperfectly apprehended as a reciprocal relation. 
The individual has duties to the state and perhaps rights 
against it in turn ; while the state, within certain limits, con- 
trols the action of the individual : educating him perhaps, 
laying down laws for his social and industrial behavior, and 
compelling him to contribute of his property, and even to 
sacrifice his liberty of action and risk his life, in defence of 
her integrity and the objects which she holds worthy of a 
nation's endeavor. In this region the functions of the state 
and of the individual are reciprocal, not identical. In the other 
region of its activity, the work of the state has at most only 
an analogy with the work of the individual. Its relations, 
diplomatic or military, with other states may be compared 
with the relations of one individual to another. But the two 
sets of relations are certainly not the same. 

The regions covered by individual and by national activity 
must, therefore, be admitted to be distinct. But it may still be 
maintained that they are — or ought to be — regulated by the 
same ethical principles. It is here that conflict of opinion 
enters. On the one hand, it is often assumed or asserted that 
national and individual morality are the same ; on the other 
hand, they are sometimes contrasted in such a way as to sug- 
gest the conclusion that they have nothing in common with 
one another, and that national morality, in any sense of the 
word which involves moral obligation, does not exist. The 
latter view is apparently that maintained by her Britannic 
Majesty's ambassador at Paris in an address on " National 
and Individual Morality Compared," delivered to the stu- 
dents at Glasgow on November 9, 1888. Lord Lytton is 
familiar both with government and with diplomacy ; his au- 
thority regarding the practice of government is undoubtedly 
great; and his arguments on this point must be allowed 
to be weighty. With the other view — the view that the 
same moral laws hold of the statesman acting for the na- 
tion, and of the individual in his private life — we are more 
familiar. Many politicians are in the habit of appealing in a 
comprehensive and perplexing way to moral first principles. 

430 International Journal of Ethics. 

And these appeals — crude as the principles on which they rest 
may be — argue at least a readiness on the part of the people 
to judge the state by the moral law of the individual. On 
this point, the judgment of the people seems unanimously to 
contradict the experience of diplomatists of all ages. On the 
one side, we have all plain men declaring that the state ought 
to be moral as they are moral ; on the other, those who are in 
the secret asserting that in this sense no state ever was, or could 
afford to be, moral. Between two such combatants, fighting 
with different weapons, how can the conflict be brought to an 
issue ? Fortunately we have not far to go for a fairly precise 
statement of the plain man's case. " We maintain," says the 
London Spectator of 5th October, 1889, that a state " can, and 
occasionally does, commit all the crimes possible to a corpora- 
tion ; . . . above all, a state can murder and it can steal ; and 
it commits the first crime when it executes any bne knowing 
the execution to be unjust, and the second when it orders 
one man or one class to pay special taxes in order to benefit 
another." The state, it is held, can commit the same crimes 
as an individual, but only some of them. From others it has 
an immunity. Some crimes, it is acknowledged, cannot be 
committed by a corporation, or consequently by the state. 
We only need to look at the decalogue to see what some of 
them are. The state can hardly be said to be guilty of 
breaking the fifth commandment or the seventh. The most 
that can be said against it is that it gives its citizens undue 
liberty of doing so if they are so minded. But the state can 
steal, we are told, and it can murder. 

In what sense can it be said that honesty is a duty of 
national as well as of individual morality ? Can the state be 
properly said to be guilty of theft ? There is a confusion, 
surely, at the very outset in saying that the state can commit 
a crime. A crime is something more than a sin, something 
more than an immoral act. It is an act punishable by law. 
It is the law of the land and the penal sanction which follows 
law which make an act a crime. It is absurd, therefore, to 
speak as if the state, acting legally, could commit a crime. 
A law may be pernicious or bad. It may be so bad — most 

The Morality of Nations. 43 1 

moralists acknowledge — as to make it a moral duty to disobey 
it. But to be criminal it would have .to be a violation of law. 
To speak of a legal act as criminal is to confuse discussion by 
perverting the recognized meaning of words. 

If the penalties against theft were to be removed from the 
statute-book, it would cease to be a crime. But it would be 
as much an offence against morality as before. Can the state 
then be guilty of this moral offence ? An individual is guilty 
of theft whenever he takes for his own use the property of 
another without that other's consent. He may be in greater 
need of the thing stolen, or may intend to use it for a better 
purpose than the owner would have done ; but none the less 
he steals it, he is guilty of theft. Can the state steal and be 
a thief like this ? If so, no private thief was ever so incorrigi- 
ble and systematic an offender as the state is. At the present 
time it enters each man's house and demands a fortieth part 
of his income for its own purposes. It takes away part of his 
property for the support of the poor, part for the education of 
other men's children, and other portions of it in various ways 
for various purposes — for almost every purpose except re- 
ligious purposes, which are supposed to have been sufficiently 
provided for by the piety of preceding generations. Surely 
no one will call this theft : there are few to be found who 
even think it wrong. The state has certain necessary func- 
tions to perform ; and the most extreme laissez-faire politi- 
cians admit the justice of taxation for these purposes. In- 
dividuals must willingly or unwillingly contribute of their 
means to support the state. It must live and do its proper 
work, and it is with full moral right that it takes the goods of 
its citizens to enable it to do so. The reason is admitted to 
be a sufficient justification. But how would such an apology 
be received for the seizure of one man's goods by another ? 
It is said that a French thief once used the argument, without 
any conspicuous success. " But, my lord, I must live, — il faut 
vivre," he said. " Je n'y vois pas la necessite," was the reply 
of the pedantic moralist on the bench, as he passed sentence 
of death. If one man seizes another man's goods without his 
permission, this is called theft : seizure of this kind is con- 

432 International Journal of Ethics. 

stantly carried out by the state in levying taxes ; yet we do 
not say that the state steals the taxes it collects. 

Vain attempts have indeed been made by certain political 
theorists — doctrinaire politicians of the first water — to base 
the morality of taxation upon the consent of the taxed. " No 
taxation without representation" is their motto : an excellent 
maxim as a partial safeguard against unfair levying of taxes, 
but far from sufficient to induce the whole world to go up 
willingly to be taxed. If any evidence were needed, the cus- 
tom-house officers might have something to tell us as to the 
willingness of many people to pay the taxes to which — ac- 
cording to this theory — they have already agreed, if taxation 
be founded on consent. But how could the possession of a 
vote for a single member of Parliament constitute consent to 
the decisions of a majority of its members ? If the moral law 
of honesty — the law against stealing or theft — is the same for 
the nation as for the individual, then all taxation to which the 
taxed have not consented must be regarded as theft. But it is 
a position far short of this which the Spectator moralist is 
anxious to maintain. The state steals (he says) " when it 
orders one man, or one class, to pay special taxes in order to 
benefit another." The offence is somewhat loosely defined. 
It might seem to apply to the poor rate, which taxes the 
class of householders for the benefit of the class of paupers ; 
and to the educational rate, which taxes persons who have no 
children, or who send their children to schools not assisted 
by the government, for the benefit of those who send theirs 
to the Board School. Yet the Spectator could never be sus- 
pected of calling such taxes theft. It is more easy to imagine 
a failure in drawing the proper distinction. But the very 
difficulty of defining the distinction between just and unjust 
taxation shows that an unfair tax is something different from 
stealing. Theft can be easily defined and easily recognized. 
But it is a difficult matter to determine what is a fair principle 
of taxation ; and no chancellor of the Exchequer would pre- 
tend to do more than approximate to this fairness in practice. 
Perhaps there are cases in which the name and legal forms of 
taxation may involve something more specific than unfairness 

The Morality of Nations. 433 

or injustice. When one individual or class uses its control 
of the legislature to lay the taxes upon others and let itself 
go free, it is not easy to distinguish the procedure from com- 
mon dishonesty. There have been times in the past in which 
the arbitrary power of a small class has been used to excuse 
itself from taxation and lay the whole burden on the trader 
and the peasant. There are indications at the present time that 
the arbitrary power of a very much larger class may be tempted 
in the near future to retaliate, and, for its own relief and gain, 
to levy all contributions upon the less powerful but richer 
few. We do not call such actions theft ; for they are done 
under the forms and carry with them the sanction of law : and 
by theft we commonly mean a breach of the law, or a crime. 
Yet it seems none the less dishonest for individuals to use 
the advantage of their position to provide for national wants 
by taking from others only, without contributing themselves. 
But we call the act dishonest only when we are judging the 
agents as individuals. It is dishonest only if the agents are 
really acting for themselves when pretending to act for the 
state. Individual morality becomes mixed with national 
morality when those through whom the state acts act for 
themselves and their own interests, instead of for the 
common good. The appropriateness of the charge of dis- 
honesty will thus depend upon the motives of the indi- 
viduals. The same act of confiscation, carried out by the 
combined wills of many, will imply dishonesty in those only 
who have voted for it out of covetousness. Others may 
have joined with them who have had no thought of personal 
gain ; and these it would be absurd to call dishonest, however 
unfair or unjust their action may have been. Their action 
has not been a personal one ; they have acted as representing 
the state, and the state — as I have already argued — cannot 

The code of individual morals cannot, therefore, be applied 
to the state. National morality is not the same thing — can- 
not be expressed by the same laws — as individual morality. 
But it does not follow from this that there is no such thing as 
a moral law for the conduct of states. The recognition that 

434 International Journal of Ethics. 

the law of the land — statute law — may be bad, and should be 
altered or amended, implies a higher law by which it may be 
judged and to which it ought to conform. Because the state 
cannot steal, it does not follow that it may not be unjust. 
What the measure and criterion are of national justice, I do 
not pretend to determine now. In the duty of justice, we 
may think — and we shall not be far wrong — national and in- 
dividual morality meet. It is a law both for the state and for 
the individual. Justice is, in fact, more a national or social, 
than a merely individual virtue. It is when the individual has 
to act not for himself, but as representing the state or a cor- 
poration, that scope for its application enters. Justice is the 
virtue of a judge, or of an examiner, or, in a measure, of an 
employer of labor, or of the head of a family. And in all 
these cases, the man who recognizes his duty may be said to 
be acting for a community — the state or some smaller social 
unit — and as representative of it. In an early code of in- 
dividual morals — in the decalogue — there is no word of justice 
among the duties of man. 

We may see in this way how the morality of the individual 
and of the nation have come to be spoken of and thought of 
as the same. A man plays many parts, and we are apt to 
confuse them. Perhaps he confuses them himself. Pretending 
to act for the nation, the statesman or ruler may prostitute his 
office, and, working for his own ends, break the laws of indi- 
vidual as well as of national morality. The individual again 
is often called upon to act for the state or for some smaller 
social aggregate ; and the code of individual morality must be 
widened to take in this national or quasi-national activity. 

This distinction may enable us to deal with another case 
more difficult than the preceding. A state can not only steal, 
we are told, but it can murder. And it does so "when it 
executes any one knowing the execution to be unjust." Here 
again there is the same confusion between individual conduct 
and national. We hear often enough indeed of " legal murder." 
But it is the language of metaphor colored by passion. Mur- 
der implies malice; and the state bears no malice. If the 
ruler gratifies his hatred or his ambition by using the final 

The Morality of Nations. 435 

sanction of the state's authority against his enemy, this is 
malice ; and, although under cover of law, the ruler has for 
himself incurred the moral guilt of murder. But it is because 
he has allowed his personal interest or enmity to sway his 
actions that he has brought himself within the scope of the 
law which says, " Thou shalt not kill." When David used 
his power as a king to gratify his private ends, and put Uriah 
in the forefront of the battle, he did not overstep the letter of 
the law by a hair's breadth. But he was guilty of murder as 
much as the moonlighter of to-day who shoots his landlord 
from behind a hedge or fires into a defenceless cottage. He 
was moved by malice against the obstacle in his path ; his ac- 
tion was not taken in his quality of king or judge, but to gratify 
his private ends. It may be and is the right and duty of the 
state, in certain circumstances, to kill or to expose to death ; 
and it must be admitted that a ruler may use the sword of 
the state unjustly without a personal or selfish motive in doing 
so. But it is not minimizing the guilt of such injustice when 
we say that it is a mistake to call it murder. There is no 
malice in the action, and malice is the essential note of mur- 
der. Murder is killing out of malice. Unjust killing is in- 
justice; it may or may not be murder in addition. Perhaps 
an historical example instanced by Lord Lytton is in place 
here, although it refers to international morality rather than 
to the rights and duties of a state in relation to its own citi- 
zens. " It is certain," he says, " that, in his conduct of public 
affairs, the first Napoleon committed many such offences 
against private morality. But the language ,of private morality 
cannot be applied to his public acts without great limitations. 
The kidnapping of the Due d'Enghien, and his summary 
execution after a sham trial, was about as bad an act as well 
could be. But I should certainly hesitate to describe it as a 
murder in the ordinary sense. Morally, I think, it was worse 
than many murders for which men have been tried and pun- 
ished by law. But I do not think that the English government 
in 18 1 5 could, with any sort of propriety, have delivered up 
Napoleon to Louis XVIII. to be tried for that offence like a 
common criminal." 

436 International Journal of Ethics. 

The state stands to its citizens in a relation which no one 
individual bears to another. To further its ends it may take 
their property and even their life. It neither steals nor mur- 
ders in doing so. And yet, on the other hand, it is clear that 
it would be unjust to do so at random. State action is, or 
ought to be, for the common good of the whole; and the 
sacrifice of property, and still more that of life, can only be 
justified when necessary for the common welfare. The state 
must therefore be regarded as having duties to its citizens : 
though they are not the same as those one citizen owes to 
another. Conversely, the citizen may be said to have rights 
against the state; — not, indeed, an absolute right either to 
life, or property, or freedom of action, but a right not to be 
deprived of these, except for the good of the state, acting 
impartially for the good of all. 

Thus far I have spoken of the morality of the state only 
in relation to its own citizens ; and the position for which I 
have contended may seem hardly to require so much argu- 
ment. Were it not for the confusion which surrounds the 
question, a simple statement might almost have taken the 
place of controversy. Were it not contended, on the one side, 
that the code of private morality holds for nations as well as 
for individuals, and that a state can commit all or almost all 
the offences — the crimes even — of which an individual may be 
guilty ; and, on the other side, were not some writers inclined 
to ignore or to deny that there is anything that can be prop- 
erly called national morality at all, it might have been un- 
necessary to insist at such length that the state is a moral 
agent, and that the moral end and moral code which ought 
to regulate its relation to its citizens, are closely bound up 
with, although not the same as, the duties to which its indi- 
vidual citizens are bound. 

But the state has to do not only with its own citizens, but 
also with other states. Can any ethical principle hold of its 
behavior towards the*m ? Is there any such thing as inter- 
national morality which bears to states a similar relation to 
that which the laws of private morality bear to individual 

The Morality of Nations. 437 

men ? In this region of foreign relations the conflict between 
the different views of national morality is accentuated and 
brought to a point. There is a sufficiently strong analogy 
between the state and the individual to give an appearance of 
reason to the assertion that, when different states are brought 
into relation, their conduct should be governed by the same 
laws as those which regulate the conduct of individuals. But, 
on the other hand, the analogy is weak enough at places to 
give support to such a contention as that urged by Lord 
Lytton. "First of all," he argues, "the subjects of private 
morals, that is to say, individuals, differ from the subjects of 
public morals, that is to say, nations, so widely that hardly a 
single proposition applicable to the one can be properly ap- 
plied to the others. In the next place, of the classes of obli- 
gations which constitute private morals, only one, namely, 
justice, has a place in public morals at all; and the sort of 
justice which finds its place in public morals is totally different 
from the justice which relates to individuals." 

There is much good sense in this statement. But, if it does 
not exaggerate the difference between the individual and the 
nation, at least it disregards their connection. It overstates 
the case, so as to lead as far from the truth as the opposing 
doctrine that private and public morals are the same. There 
is an apparent cynicism in it, too, from which we are apt to 
recoil, and, in so doing, to fall into the opposite extreme of 
judging the state by a standard that would be too narrow even 
for individuals : condemning all war as " multitudinous mur- 
der," and looking upon conquest, and even upon colonization, 
as but theft on a large scale. 

There has long been a party in our country who have 
adopted this view, regarding war as sinful and immoral, and 
the profession of arms as no better than trade in murder. 
The horrors of war, the sacredness of human life, and the pre- 
cepts of the religion of peace have combined to make them 
testify against the use of the weapon, which no statesman has 
ever been bold enough to propose that the nation should lay 
aside. This sense of the horror of war has been shared and 
expressed by writers who are yet keenly alive to the martial 
Vol. I. — No. 4 29 

438 International jfournal of Ethics. 

pride of arms. "The murder of the campaign is done to mili- 
tary music," Thackeray makes his hero, Henry Esmond, say, 
after listening to Addison's heroics on the victories of Marl- 
borough. " I was ashamed of my trade," he continues, " when 
I saw those horrors perpetrated, which came under every 
man's eyes. You hew out of your polished verses a stately 
image of smiling victory; I tell you 'tis an uncouth, distorted, 
savage idol ; hideous, bloody, and barbarous. The rites per- 
formed before it are shocking to think of. You great poets 
should show it as it is, — ugly and horrible, not beautiful and 
serene. Oh, sir, had you made the campaign, believe me you 
never would have sung it so." 

" Murder done to military music." Does this sum up the 
triumphs of war? Do battle and warfare rouse only the evil 
passions of a man, turning him into an infuriate beast or an 
incarnate fiend ? Surely this is one side of the shield only. 
There is no fire that tries a man so keenly, bringing out and 
lighting up both the good and evil in him, as the long priva- 
tions of war and the wild shock of battle. In spite of the ter- 
ror and the squalor which Thackeray describes with such vivid 
realism, — or, largely, because of them, — the field of battle, 
which every man enters with his life in his hand, has been 
the scene of the noblest heroism and self-sacrifice, and has 
shown human nature at its best as well as at its worst. 

It would have been strange had it been otherwise. For 
warfare, stern and savage as it is, is the high road by which 
human civilization has been obliged to advance hitherto. Per- 
haps it may be possible in the future to construct less stony 
and dangerous paths for the progress of mankind. Already 
much has been done to soften even the stern art of war, by 
the spread of a common feeling among different nations. 
Compare, for example, the treatment of non-combatants and 
of prisoners as it was even in Marlborough's campaigns with 
what took place in the Franco-German war of twenty years 
ago, where strict discipline was maintained in the invading 
army, and no plunder or reckless slaughter was permitted. 
The dogs of war were kept in leash. Warfare between civil- 
ized states is no longer to be compared with Hobes's state of 

The Morality of Nations. 439 

nature, where all things are permitted, and there is neither 
good nor evil. Common consent has established that no 
needless misery is to be inflicted, and that no injury is to 
be done which does not contribute to the great end of 

Here, then, at least, is a redeeming feature in the dark 
picture that has been drawn of the iniquity of warfare. War 
cannot be altogether bad, for it might be worse than it is. 
When nations cast aside the methods of diplomacy and peace- 
ful negotiation, and appeal to the God of battles to settle their 
disputes, they are not freed from the bonds of morality; and 
they have even acknowledged the obligation (though they 
may not call it such) to restrain the misery of war within the 
limits of what is necessary for the attainment of its end. 

These considerations are already pointing us to the same con- 
clusion regarding international morality as that which we have 
reached regarding the morality of a nation in its relation to its 
own citizens. War is not "multitudinous murder." It gives 
the individual soldier opportunity for many offences which 
may escape detection and punishment : but probably much 
less opportunity for murder than for other offences. For the 
soldier cannot easily have malice, or any other personal feel- 
ing, towards those to whom he is opposed. To talk of the 
state committing murder is absurd ; for the state is not a sub- 
ject of feeling, and consequently can bear no malice. To say 
that the statesman who orders the war, or the general who 
conducts it, is guilty of murder, is almost equally absurd, ex- 
cept in the isolated cases in which he can be shown to have 
entered upon it to gratify his private ends. War may be the 
result of wanton aggression, or of an unjust claim where the 
interests of two states clash ; and such wars are rightly called 
unjust. But if there are unjust wars, it follows that resistance 
to this injustice must itself be just. If all conquest and aggres- 
sion is wrong, the war undertaken in self-defence, and to pro- 
tect a nation's territory and the freedom of its citizens, must 
surely be justified, in spite of the sacrifice of life it is sure to 

It is a mistake to speak of a nation as committing murder 

440 International Journal of Ethics. 

in war, — even in an unjust war. For not only is the state 
without the motive which is essential to murder ; but it is only 
individuals that are killed: the conqueror does not kill the 
hostile state. It may weaken or even maim it ; but the analogy 
with individual morality is not complete, except in the cases 
— so rare that they can hardly be said to exist at all — when 
the one state is entirely exterminated by the other. 

Perhaps there is a more complete analogy with private 
morals in the case of conquest, when, as the result of war, or 
by forcible seizure, one nation deprives another of part of its 
territory. Here there is a complete similarity in the external 
action. It is in the absence of a personal or selfish motive 
that the act of conquest by a nation differs from theft by an 
individual. On the whole, it may seem, however, that the 
similarity of the two cases is much more striking than their 
difference : so much so as to make it difficult to deny that 
there is some appropriateness in the use of the term theft. 
Must we in all cases, therefore, mete out to conquest a 
similar moral condemnation to that with which we regard 
the act of theft ? There is one consideration to which, I 
think, weight must be given before we pass so sweeping a 
judgment. Within a nation the state is above all individuals; 
and, although no citizen has a right to take or use the property 
of another without his consent, the state recognizes this ab- 
solute right of an individual to his property only as against 
other individuals, not as against itself. The state, therefore, is 
there as a superior power to prevent, if it see fit, the individual 
from grossly misusing his property, or from leaving it entirely 
unused, and thus depriving the nation of its share in the 
value which would be derived from its employment. But 
there is no corresponding superior power over nations, pre- 
venting the misuse, or disuse of their property and power. 
Shall we say, therefore, that every nation has an absolute 
(moral) right to what it possesses as against the interference 
of any other nation ? If we do, we push the rights of nations 
against one another further than individual rights exist, even 
in the eyes of the Liberty and Property Defence League. 
It is admitted on all hands that there is a limit restraining 

The Morality of Nations. 441 

individual rights to property. Is there no restriction at all — 
no moral restriction, I mean, for, of course, there is no legal 
restriction — upon a nation's right to its territory and all that 
it contains, to use ill or not to use at all ? I do not see what 
good ground we can give for answering this question in the 
affirmative, — what reason there is for asserting the absolute 
moral right of a nation to non-interference from without, 
because it happens to be legally independent. It is more 
difficult to say to whom the right of interference belongs and 
on what occasions its use may be justified. Powerful nations 
are not unused to playing the part of mentor to their neigh- 
bors ; and advice given in this way by a powerful state has 
commonly been found to end in some sacrifice of independence 
or integrity on the part of its weaker neighbor. We may 
condemn the injustice of the interference and of the loss of 
liberty or seizure of territory to which it may lead ; but our 
view of national morality is hardly made clearer by applying to 
it the law against theft, borrowed without change from private 

In spite of the analogy, therefore, between the relation of 
individuals to one another and the relation of states to one 
another, the moral laws which hold of the former cannot be 
applied to the other without so much modification and ex- 
planation as to change their meaning in an important way. 
When we have explained all that can properly be meant by 
the laws, " Thou shalt not kill," or " Thou shalt not steal," as 
applied to nations, we find that we have explained away every- 
thing which makes " theft" different from " murder." What 
remains is in the form of a general obligation upon states to 
observe justice in their dealings with one another. As Lord 
Lytton puts it, in words already quoted, " Of the classes of 
obligations which constitute private morals, only one, namely, 
justice, has a place in public morals at all." With this I agree. 
But I dissent from the diplomatist when he goes on to assert 
that " the sort of justice which finds its place in public morals 
is totally different from the justice which relates to individu- 
als. It is far less definite, it cannot be codified, and it consists 
mainly in moderation and kindly prudence." Justice, as 

442 International Journal of Ethics. 

I have already argued, enters the sphere of private morals 
only when the individual is regarded as acting in a social 
capacity, — when he represents in some way a community 
or corporation. There are not two entirely different sorts of 
justice, therefore, — private and public, — but justice has various 
degrees and modes of application according to the kind of 
social whole within which it is applied. It is most clearly 
defined and most exactly codified when determined by a duly 
appointed legislature and enforced by the sanctions of an 
executive power. Yet the reality of justice, and of the moral 
obligation to observe it, does not depend on legal codification 
or penal sanction. The progress of legislation and of the 
administration of law is an attempt to bring the actual laws of 
the country and their application into closer and closer corre- 
spondence with the demands of an ideal justice : an ideal 
imperfectly apprehended, indeed, but yet appealed to as the 
criterion by which laws themselves are to be judged. 

Such laws apply only to individuals and to corporations 
within the state. It is only there that justice is clearly de- 
fined and codified, and obtains the sanction of law. In inter- 
national relations, on the other hand, we enter a region where 
definitions are less clear, where those rules only are codified 
which apply to the minor questions of international relation, 
to the neglect of weightier matters, and where the sanctions 
with which we are so familiar are conspicuous by their absence. 
We may even go the length of saying that there is no such 
thing as international law : for law implies a sovereign power 
over the subjects of it, enforcing obedience by penal sanctions. 
But this is no good reason for concluding that there is no 
such thing as international morality, or (with Lord'Lytton) 
that the "sort of justice which finds its place in public morals 
is totally different from the justice which relates to indi- 
viduals." According to the diplomatist, the only justice to 
be recognized here " consists mainly in moderation and kindly 
prudence." Overlooking the counsel to kindness and modera- 
tion, — as we may be allowed to do, for it is hardly put for- 
ward as a moral law, — we see that international justice is 
made to consist in prudence, a view which distinguishes it 

The Morality of Nations. 443 

sharply from justice in the ordinary acceptation of the term. 
Justice within the state involves impartiality in dealing with 
the competing claims of individuals ; whereas the state is 
said to act justly to neighboring states if it is prudent, — i.e., 
looks after its own interests. Self-preservation (as the theory 
is otherwise put) is the only end for the state in its foreign 
relations ; self-interest the only standard by which its action 
is to be guided. 

Even this, however, is not a denial of international mo- 
rality, but only a special theory of its content. The theory 
overlooks, I think, important elements in the nature and 
development of nations ; but yet it is one which may with- 
out inconsistency be held by those whose view of private 
duty has far transcended Egoism, the gospel of selfishness. 
As Lord Lytton says, " Think of a nation solely as a simple 
unit, and we must affirm that, as such, in its relations with 
other units of the same kind, it is not only entitled, but 
bound, to act with greater seeming selfishness than would be 
morally permissible to any single individual in the like re- 
lations. But look upon nations as what they really are, — 
aggregates of citizens holding each other's interests in mutual 
trust, — and then the moral significance of what is called 
national selfishness is wholly changed. It ceases to be selfish- 
ness in any proper sense of the word. It becomes patriotism. 
And the rulers of a nation who should sacrifice its interests to 
those of other nations would be guilty of a breach of trust, 
whether the ruling power be one or many, a despotism or a 
democracy." And, again, " we can all conceive of circum- 
stances in which it might be the clear duty of an individual 
to sacrifice his life for the good of others. But are any circum- 
stances conceivable in which it would be as clearly the duty 
of a nation to extinguish its national existence for the benefit 
of other nations or of humanity at large ? To answer this 
question in the affirmative would be paradoxical." It would 
indeed involve a misconception both of individual morals and 
of the function of the state. Sacrifice of his individual life 
is only a duty for the individual when such a loss is the sole 
means of attaining a greater good than personal life, or avoid- 

444 International Journal of Ethics. 

ing a greater evil than death. But the state has no such 
personal life to lay down. It is its function to guard and 
develop the lives of its citizens, and so to direct the national 
life, with its power of limitless continuance and development, 
as to make it contribute to that greater purpose which can be 
realized only through the social and political relations of men. 
How can we even conceive as possible the voluntary sacrifice 
of its own life by a nation ? Is it the act (or idea) of the ruler 
without the consent of the people ? In this case it is not 
national self-sacrifice at all, but a sacrifice of others, — a be- 
trayal of trust on the part of the person whose duty it was to 
protect them. If, on the other hand, it is to be conceived as 
a unanimous act of self-sacrifice on the part of all the people, 
then all that can be said is, that any nation, whose citizens 
are capable of such heroism, must surely be worth preserving 
on account of their unique moral development. 

National morality differs from individual morals in this 
respect, that a nation's first duty may be said to be to itself. 
There is no selfishness, there is only patriotism, in its recog- 
nizing the fact and acting upon it. A nation is complete 
and independent in a sense in which the individual is not. 
Throughout his whole life a man is dependent upon others. 
In what he does and what he gets he is equally a member of 
the body politic, and not an independent unit. Even his 
mind, which we sometimes regard as so peculiarly his own 
that freedom of thought has been erected into a first principle of 
individualistic ethics, is derived from and depends upon others, 
in respect of his inherited character and of the bundle of pre- 
cepts and prejudices, of truth and truism, which he has learned 
with his mother tongue. But the national life is, in a sense, 
complete in itself, and we may conceive a nation living cut off 
from all intercourse with other nations, just as Bishop Berkeley 
thought that, if Ireland were surrounded by a wall of brass 
a thousand cubits high, its natives might nevertheless " live 
cleanly and comfortably, till the land, and reap the fruits of it." 

In the case of an individual man, the causes which bring 
him into contact and union with others precede his own indi- 
vidual life and determine its character. But the national life 

The Morality of Nations. 445 

precedes international relations. We must, therefore, expect 
that international morality should be of later growth, and 
even, perhaps, of less importance than individual morals. 

From this circumstance, too, results the absence — or almost 
complete absence — of any sanctions in the reign of public 
morals, such as we find compelling obedience to the more 
essential portions of private morals. This absence of sanction 
makes international law a dream of that distant future, in 
which a confederacy of states shall be strong enough to con- 
trol the aggressive instincts of any single nation. But even 
now, with constant intercourse between different nations, the 
incomplete sanctions which at present appeal to the pru- 
dence and self-interest of nations have made them render 
homage to certain portions of international morality. Com- 
merce has vindicated its importance, and no European state 
would now venture to repudiate a public debt. They have 
foresight enough to see the importance of money, and that 
the confidence of financial circles ,once shaken is not easily 
regained. Thus debts are paid, even when treaties are often 
broken, if it is worth a state's while to offend the other con- 
tracting parties by doing so, and it is powerful enough to run 
the risk. 

The principles of morality have as yet had but a partial 
triumph in regulating the relations of states. But their valid- 
ity does not depend on the recognition hitherto obtained by 
them, and the intercourse of nations can only reach a full 
measure of development under a common moral law, which 
recognizes the rights of one nation as of equal value with the 
rights of any other. 

The conclusions of this paper may be summed up as 
follows : 

1. That, since nations differ from individuals, the laws of 
national morality cannot be identified with those of private 

2. That, since a nation is a body of individuals connected 
by race and territory and organized for political purposes, — 
since, therefore, it is an organism consisting, in every part, of 
moral organisms, — the nation itself is the subject of morality. 

446 International Journal of Ethics. 

3. That this conclusion is not affected by the almost 
complete absence from international relations of the usual 
sanctions of morality, seeing that morality is not, like law, 
dependent on sanctions, and that even private morality is, 
to a large extent, beyond the reach of social and political 

4. That the duty of self-preservation and self-development 
holds for a nation in a way in which it does not hold for an 
individual, seeing that a nation possesses an independence 
and self-sufficiency which are not shared by the individual. 

5. That this duty of self-preservation should be recognized 
as holding for all nations, so that, when different nations are 
brought into contact, their relation to one another should be 
determined by an equal regard for the rights of all. 

But it must still be added : 

6. That, as long as there is no superior power to enforce 
this international morality, that nation only is wise which is 
prepared to defend its rights. 

W. R. Sorley. 


In the preface to the first edition of his " Logic," Mill de- 
scribed the main drift of its concluding book in these words : 
" It is an attempt to contribute towards the solution of a 
question which the decay of old opinions and the agitation 
that disturbs European society to its inmost depths render as 
important in the present day to the practical interests of 
human life as it must at all times be to the completeness of 
our speculative knowledge, — viz., whether moral and social 
phenomena are really exceptions to the general certainty and 
uniformity of the course of nature ; and how far the methods 
by which so many of the laws of the physical world have 
been numbered among truths irrevocably acquired and uni- 
versally assented to can be made instrumental to the for-